It's no secret that the job of a paramedic or EMT can be stressful. In fact, studies have found that EMTs and paramedics are three times more likely than the general public to experience mental health issues—depression and post-traumatic stress disorder being five times more common among emergency medical responders.
And while the holiday season is a welcome distraction for many, the reality is that this time of year can be particularly stressful for first responders. With upticks in emergency incidents, EMS personnel may struggle with their mental health after responding to devastating events during the holidays. Fortunately, there are some measures EMS and paramedic instructors can take to better support these workers and their mental health.
Why The Holidays Are Especially Challenging for First Responders
According to the American Red Cross, nearly 47,000 fires occur during the winter holidays each year, claiming more than 500 lives across the United States. Christmas trees, candles, and other seasonal decorations are common causes of house fires during the holiday season. Paramedics and EMTs are often the first on-scene. First responders to these scenes often deal with severe secondhand trauma related to these incidents; seeing the trees, gifts, injuries, and deaths stays with them.
In addition to holiday house fires, paramedics and EMTs are also more likely to respond to severe traffic accidents during the holiday season. According to a 2019 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are more car accidents during the holidays than any other time of year. Many people travel to see family and loved ones, which leads to more traffic on the road. Combine this with holiday parties that often involve alcohol, as well as stressed and fatigued drivers, and it's easy to see how accidents occur.
Unfortunately, first responders bear witness to the devastating effects these traffic accidents can have on the community—and they may struggle with their own mental health, suffering prom post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety as a result.
How First Responders Can Take Care of Their Mental Health
During this stressful time of year especially, first responders are encouraged to be proactive about taking care of themselves and are advised to seek additional help as needed. This begins recognizing signs of delayed stress response, such as:
- Feeling sad and/or easily frustrated
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with stress
- Isolating from others
Because secondary traumatic stress is also common among first responders who witness traumatic events during the holiday season, paramedics and EMTs should also be on the lookout for these signs:
- Feeling "on guard" all the time or being easily startled
- Having recurrent nightmares or intrusive thoughts about traumatic events
- Experiencing physical signs of stress (such as a racing heart)
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Fixating on previous calls/events
- Changes in appetite
- Decrease in interest in hobbies and other activities
Of course, first responders suffering from these symptoms may have a hard time recognizing these symptoms on their own; this is where EMS instructors, co-workers, family, friends, and loved ones should step in whenever possible. First responders should be supported and reminded that their feelings and experiences are valid, and that there are resources available to help them. Letting them talk is an important part of processing the events, thoughts and feelings responders have. However, caution is recommended on being pushy and demanding that someone talk, as this can push someone away.
Teaching Mental Health and Supporting First Responders
Unfortunately, first responders still struggle with a lack of support within their own departments when it comes to mental health. The good news is that across the country, more departments are taking measures to provide first responders with more mental health resources.
In Texas, for example, the BSA Behavioral Health Team now offers certified mental health treatment for first responders in Amarillo and across the Texas Panhandle. At this crisis center, first responders can receive dedicated care and treatment for a wide range of common conditions.
As rookie first responder Brayden Williams explains, "It's great that in this day and age, we're seeing an increase in people reaching out and getting the help that they need."
Lee Gillum, education supervisor with Montgomery County Hospital District EMS (MCHD-EMS) in Montgomery County, Texas, reminds everyone that the simplest thing that EMS personnel can do is check on each other.
“If your station mate had a high-acuity call the previous shift, call them and see how they’re doing,” he says. “Don’t text them! A phone call is personal, a text is not. Your station mate is more apt to talk to you or a peer who has had a similar experience.”
Gillum warns to be careful about giving unsolicited advice, saying that “listening is often the best medicine.”
In addition to these types of programs, paramedic/EMT instructors can support first responders by training and designating Mental Health Resilience Officer (MHRO) roles within their departments, which can help spread awareness of common mental health issues and support a culture of mental health and wellness. This, in addition to teaching first responder support and resilience in an interactive setting, can enable first responders to recognize signs of mental health issues and empower them to seek help as needed.
More than ever, first responders need mental health support during the holiday season. PSG is committed to offering the comprehensive training resources your department needs to reduce the stigma around mental health and take care of its dedicated first responders. Get in touch with our team today to learn more.